“If it be / now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be / now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The / readiness is all.”
(Hamlet, V ii, 234-237)
Hamlet’s primary inner conflict throughout the play is based around his inability to accept his unfortunate situation, and his struggle with himself to act firmly and resolutely to resolve it. For much of the play Hamlet appears either too overwhelmed with grief and self pity, or too consumed with hesitation or second guessing to assume the role of hero and king that he is destined for. Thus he continues to delay taking revenge on his uncle who so dearly deserves it. However foil characters, such as Laertes, Fortinbras, or even Horatio, reveal Hamlet’s flaws to readers and, more importantly, to Hamlet himself. This leads to a gradual but noticeable change in his demeanor, which culminates with this final exchange with Horatio and the long awaited murder of Claudius.
His conversation with Horatio clearly demonstrates Hamlet’s new thinking. He seems completely at peace with his situation. Not only does he appear to have moved beyond his overwhelming grief, but he seems prepared to finish enacting his revenge and restoring proper order to the state of Denmark, no matter what it costs him. This becomes evident as he describes his bold and decisive actions to escape certain death to Horatio and then as he calmly accepts an invitation to duel Laertes, which both Hamlet and Horatio seem to quickly recognize as a trap. Although Horatio urges him to reject the invitation, he refuses saying, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”. After constantly debating the meaning of life itself throughout the play, Hamlet has come to the belief that God has a hand in every detail of life. Furthermore Hamlet claims that whatever is destined to happen will happen soon enough, and that for those on Earth, “the readiness is all”.
Though this may seem to be a depressing comment considering Hamlet’s circumstances, it rather should be taken as an encouraging sign that Hamlet is willing to face his destiny that he knew he would have to accept all along. He is acting more like the leader and king he is meant to be by not sacrificing the good of the state because of personal difficulties, as tough as that may be in his situation.
These lines carry several important meanings to all its readers beyond the play, though obviously not in the same context as they do within Hamlet. In a general sense, the lines serve as a good reminder to any reader to always be ready for anything. Every person is bound to find themselves in difficult or desperate circumstances often throughout their lives. As Hamlet mentions, in these situations, being prepared can make a significant difference.
If you interpret these lines from Hamlet in a broader context however, they take on a deeper meaning for Hamlet and for the reader. Given the circumstances, it is clear Hamlet’s primary subject is death itself. If you wait for it, it may never come, but at the same time, if you expect it to be far off, it may come more suddenly than you expect. Thus all you can do is always be ready to accept it when it comes. Though it is an incredibly depressing truth (and a much more pressing one in Hamlet’s situation within the play than for any reader), it is one Hamlet recognizes. Thus he is also aware that he must be ready for it by accomplishing what he needs to before it comes. Though no reader will ever take the lines in such a desperate light, it is still a sullen reminder of death’s constant presence.